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Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The cowboy looked me up and down. 'What did ya, lose a bet?' he asked.

So Labor Day has come and gone. Despite being preoccupied with Brexit, and the unseemly behaviour of the grotesque toffs that have infested British politics, I did note the passing of the USA’s last public holiday before Thanksgiving. It marked an anniversary.

Twenty-five years ago, on Monday 5th September 1994, I set off on a journey to get the measure of Nebraska.

I’d been studying the state’s literature and history for some time, and had made two road trips, in 1991 and ’93 – first along the Oregon Trail, then into the Panhandle to visit Mari Sandoz’ sister Caroline.

Listening to her talk about the old days in Nebraska, I decided I needed to know the place better, to get the feel of it. I came up with a journey. State line to state line, from the banks of the Missouri to the Wyoming border, from the lowest point, 840 feet above sea level, to the highest, 5424. On a bicycle, which I would have to borrow. I'd not, at this stage, heard of the annual Bike Ride Across Nebraska, or BRAN.

I started in the little town of Rulo, and over the next ten or twelve days made my way along the Republican river valley, north to the Platte, finally following Lodgepole Creek towards Kimball. As the temperature hovered around the mid-90s, parts of my face and arms turned a dark shade of brown. I developed white crow’s feet. My ankles got burned, as did the tops of my ears. My front tyre blew at seven one morning and I found to my horror that there was nothing out there to lean a bike against – no fence, no wall, no telegraph pole. I was chased by dogs, several of them. I talked to strangers in bars, cafés, in the shade of grain elevators, in small-town museums and family-run diners. I camped in State Parks and in city parks. I was haunted in my tent at night by cackling maniacs – and only realised years later that I’d been listening to nothing more sinister than a bunch of coyotes. I sheltered in whatever shade I could find: under lone cottonwoods, rustling cornstalks, and on one occasion in the shadow of a little camper-van beside Highway 30 – after asking the driver’s permission.    

After several days with a balmy wind behind me, the weather turned. At Ogallala a storm blew through town, flooding the streets and re-arranging the trash cans. By next morning the temperature had dropped fifty degrees, the wind had made an about turn. And it had freshened up some. Fifty-five miles an hour, I was reliably informed by the guy in the pick-up who rescued me from the ensuing dust-storm, took me into Chappell in his pick-up and handed me over to his mother. She fed me, then put me up for the night. Cowboys, eh?

At Kimball, you have to turn off the highway onto dirt roads to find Promontory Point. That was the best part of the ride. Now convinced that I would make it, I enjoyed myself. There was no traffic, the weather had settled down, and the fields were full of wheat stubble and sunflowers. I passed a delightful old schoolhouse, and saw a herd of deer cross the road in from of me and disappear - like water sinking through sand.

I arrived at my destination around midday and found a concrete obelisk marking the state’s highest point, over a mile high. They had a metal desk there, and inside it a notebook filled with signatures. I added mine, after checking through a few pages to make sure I was the first Brit.

Back in England, I wrote a book about my trip. I called it Mountaineering in the Sierra Nebraska. I briefly thought I’d sold it to a Midwest publisher, but for some reason they pulled the plug. It languished under my desk for many years, and then, three years ago I re-branded it and published it myself. The new title was a gift – from an old-timer I met on a seat outside a barber shop in Red Cloud. I had a cracked bearing and wanted to know if there was anyone in town who fixed bikes. ‘We-ell, there used to be a guy,’ he said, pausing to light a cigarette and scratch his head. Then, with superb timing, he added the words which gave me title. ‘But he died.’
 


If you’d like to read There Used to Be a Guy… But He Died, it’s available from amazon in hard copy at $10.95, or on Kindle at $4.33: http://amzn.to/1T3XxRP


 

Thursday, 11 July 2019

On turning... can it really be 70?

It was a great birthday celebration, and it seemed to last all week. We had five days of visitors – from Sweden, London, West Virginia, Cornwall, Wales… people who have known me twenty, thirty, even sixty years and were still willing to travel huge distances to enjoy my company. And of course there was the party: 50-odd friends and family converging on a little village hall in the far north of Northumberland, just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Scottish border. Quaint, isn't it?
 
Cuddystone Hall, just a few miles south-west of Wooler, Northumberland
It was a strange feeling, seeing people connected with the many phases of my past, and realising that they were part of – well, I was going to say a jigsaw, but I feel that ‘mosaic’ would be a more appropriate word, because my career has been fragmented, to say the least. Fifty jobs and thirty addresses at the last count. But my goodness, I have collected some great and loyal friends along the way.

We enjoyed a relaxed afternoon: cakes and tea was followed by a duck race on the stream that flows down the College Valley.
 
College Burn, scene of the duck-race. A challenging course. 
Between us we had five grandsons attending, and I was delighted to see the older three high above us, exploring the sides of the mountains that rose to the north. I was reminded of the days, in the 1950s, when I roamed the bracken-covered hillsides of Surrey and found solace in the woods. Fortunately these particular youngsters didn’t have any matches with them.

In the evening we ate supper and danced. Well, we did our best, to the accompaniment of an excellent band. There’s always an element of confusion in a decent ceilidh, and I certainly did my best to see that nothing went as smoothly as it was supposed to. At times you can feel pretty inept trying to follow all the moves, but I take comfort from the realisation that nobody ever has time to laugh at you. When you’re ‘stripping the willow’ or ‘galloping’ through a row of fellow dancers, desperately trying to remember whether the caller said ‘left’ or ‘right’ – and in any case realising that you’re suddenly incapable of distinguishing one foot from the other – you can bet that most of the other dancers are having the same trouble.

It can be a rather forlorn moment when a party ends, and the guests trickle away into the night. When will we meet again, and all that? (Quite a thought-provoking question when you’re about to turn seventy). This was when I was glad we had arranged overnight accommodation for thirty or so in a bunkhouse tucked away upstream. It meant there was time to talk further over a leisurely breakfast, in a calmer atmosphere, with one or two friends I hadn’t seen since my 60th. (Was that really ten years ago?)

Back home there were more guests to entertain, but by Tuesday the last ones had  departed, and we were left to celebrate my actual birthday in peace. However, there was still time for one more golden moment, when a charming young woman wished me happy birthday and told me she had assumed this was my sixtieth.

My joy is complete. I shall embark on my eighth decade with hope and positivity.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

The sky-diving Elvis impersonator: or, that’s why I keep a journal.

I was collating income and expenditure figures for my year-end accounts. I could almost see the energy oozing out of my pores as I sank lower in my seat. It wasn’t long before I was speculating about the next paying proposition, and where it might come from.

Left field is the answer, of course. They always come from left field, as a random flip through my collected journals never fails to remind me.

My journals now stretch back 25 years. In that time I have published 25 books, written another dozen that await their moment, and over 200 TV scripts. I have read, assessed and written reports on 500 manuscripts, written a whole bunch of  miscellaneous articles, reviews and short stories… and still had those dry stretches that sent me out to work as a barman, a racecourse bookie, a lab assistant. And all the time I’ve been firing off enquiries, filling out applications for residencies and scholarships, presenting ideas to editors, publishers and entrepreneurs, drafting proposals for TV series, radio dramas, documentaries and corporate histories... as well as fielding enquiries from countless people who insist that the story of their amazing life will earn them millions and give me a fat percentage.

Yes. Well. Yesterday I flipped through a couple of months’ entries from around 2002-03. That brief span threw up all kinds of endeavours that I’d more or less forgotten – and reminded me how much energy I had in those days. Energy generated by desperation. Because conjuring up some kind of income, month in month out for 25 years, takes some doing.

The first thing I find is a record of protracted discussions with an outfit called RANY. I think it stands for Rural Arts North Yorkshire. The long and short of it is that I attend several meetings and draw up plans for a series of writing courses for old people in care, and their carers. Yes. Except that it’s all done on spec, and I will only be paid if the courses happen. Which they don’t.

At the same time there are ongoing talks with BBC Bristol: someone is making a film about their series Vets In Practice, for which I wrote the scripts. It will be shot in Birmingham, and I will be paid £250 for an interview. I remember that well: I blew it big time, letting slip, on camera, that I was not impressed by Christopher Timothy’s acting ability. Got the fee, but never made the final cut. They would, however, invite me to a tenth anniversary bash at Bristol a few weeks later.

There follows a flurry of correspondence with the travel editor at the Sunday Times. She has published a number of my pieces but is (a) cutting the fee, due to the Iraq War looming and (b) telling me that, although my writing is very much to her taste, I really need to write about the kind of places that an average ST reader would take his wife and kids for a fortnight’s holiday. Not ‘my wild camping adventures in the desolate wastes of western Arizona’. Later she would write and tell me, ‘If I were rich I would be your patron, but meanwhile…’

Next up I see an email coming in from the gal at Radio 4 who produced my play. Aha, she never emails to say we haven’t made it, so this must be good news.  It isn’t.  She is vexed, having been asked specifically to re-submit my idea about Willa Cather’s relationship with A E Housman, only to have it rejected.

While I am in that Radio 4 vein I chase up a maverick producer who likes my ideas and is considering several of them… but who will, a few pages later, tell me she’s resigning from the BBC because it is now run by timorous youths with no sense of history.

In September I go to jail. Preston, to be specific. I recall an unhealthily warm environment, a lot of pale green paint, everyone walking at a sluggish pace, as if sedated… and a long interview. I am applying for a post as a writer in residence and am turned down that very evening. They tell me they aren’t sure I know why I want the job. (It’s the money, stupid.)  I see their point, which is why I withdraw from another interview at H.M. Prison Lincoln the following week.

Between times I continue to write reports for The Literary Consultancy and teach by correspondence for the Open College of the Arts. Somehow I find time to go for an interview for a job as… an interviewer. Market research. And draw another blank.

Unsolicited emails trickle in: one from a woman who contacted me some months ago about one-to-one tuition; another from a woman who has drafted her life story. She wants me to take her 280,000-word ms and reduce it to 100,000. We agree fees and star work.

I apply to work as a Writing Support Tutor at York St John University, composing a ten-minute presentation on ‘Issues Arising From Student Writing’.  The interview, when it comes, starts badly and gets worse.  Among the questions they ask me is, ‘Do you feel happier working with groups or one to one?’ ‘One to one’ is clearly the wrong answer. They phone that evening to tell me so.   

Money drifts in from time to time: a cheque for £26 from Granada TV for sales to New Zealand of one of my old Emmerdale episodes.

Somewhere I read about an artist-in-residence post in the South Dakota Badlands, and spend an age drafting 3500 words on ‘My Love Affair with the Great Plains’.

I take the train down to the BBC party in Bristol. A director I have worked with throws her arms around me. ‘Alan! I’ve been meaning to email you!’ Another talks enthusiastically of the real prospect of some writing work - next year – without mentioning that he will retire three months later. Someone else tells me they’ll need a script writer for the Vets’ Christmas Special. My series producer is one of several people who bounce up and ask, ‘What are you working on now?’ Telling media folk that you’re actually on a dry run is never a good idea.

And then comes one of those out-of-the-blue queries. A partner at one of the world’s  largest accounting firms has seen one of my corporate histories and wants to talk. Soon. When so-and-so recovers from his heart attack. (I suspect he never did, and the project died with him.)

New manuscripts come in for appraisal. There’s a 298-pager on ‘my fifteen years living and working in Asia’ (for Asia, read Korea, Japan and occasional trips to Hong Kong and Australia).  I write a 4750ww report explaining at great length how to write stories from diaries and notes. (A clue: not by transcribing them.)

Now, here’s one of which I have no recollection whatsoever: a trip to Middlesbrough for a BBC get-together of wannabe northern writers. All I get from that is the realisation that I’ve probably had all the breaks the other attendees sought, but have failed to capitalise on them.

Now comes a sequence of phone calls with a 100-year-old grocery chain who have been keeping me interested for five long years in a possible history. Soon, they said. We’ll soon be making a firm decision. (They never did.)

Another random email, arriving a little after six one evening, comes from an agent who’s found me on the Society of Authors’ website. She’s looking for a biographer for a Holocaust survivor. Great excitement, which ultimately leads nowhere.

A former tutee writes, asking me to read and assess a short play he’s written. Sure thing. That’ll be £75.

Did all of this really happen in eight weeks? Well, that’s what the journal tells me. And I still find time to host a committee meeting for the OCA, notching up a £130 fee. This is where I offer the opinion that at £13 an assignment I can’t afford to give more than one hour to any piece of work. A certain poet disagrees, telling us that he likes to mull each poem over for a day or two before writing up his report.

Income, however small, is always welcome. I discover that Writer’s Forum owe me £80 from last June and bang out a repeat invoice. I send welcome letters to a couple of new students (at the agreed fee of £2.00 a time.)

Having heard that my radio  play is about to be repeated, I get all excited and call BBC Contracts at Bristol. The good feeling doesn’t last long. They remind me that my original contract was for two transmissions, meaning I get nothing for the repeat.

Two new mss drop through the letter-box. There’s a 270-pager on ‘My Life As Lady Purser With a Well Known Shipping Line’, and a second: ‘My Life of Hell With A Sick Mother, a Sick Aunt, An Ailing Grandmother, An Impotent Husband of Seventy-Eight and A Seven-Year-Old Who Screams All The Time – And By The Way My Mother’s Dog Was Sick Too And We Had to Put It Down’. Happy days, but another £400 or so in the bank.

I write to welcome three new OCA students, all Starters, and two of them inherited from a tutor who’s died (it’s an ill wind…). Another £6.00 on the monthly invoice. 

Out of the blue, a call from some guy from Scarborough, a stand-up comedian and sky-diving Elvis impersonator who wants a script-writer. We will meet in a pub next week. I will spend several weeks on this, penning a decent enough half-hour episode, and then he will go strangely silent.

I send off a travel piece about Oklahoma art galleries to the Daily Telegraph’s travel editor. He snaps it up. That’ll be about £350.

So that’s a slice of one journal. I am exhausted just reading it. One day I may have the energy to trawl through the whole lot, roughly 1,500,000 words. I wonder whether I’ll laugh or cry.

And the left field moment? Just after I’d started a winter’s work at the sugar-beet factory I heard that I’d been selected as Jack Kerouac Writer in Residence in Orlando Florida.
 
The Jack Kerouac House, behind the giant live oak 
 

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Hiking in the Balkans


Back from a tough assignment, a week-long hike along sections of the Via Dinarica in Croatia and Bosnia. This was a guided hike. Having never visited the region, we feared the mountains might be a bit daunting for us to negotiate alone. It was organised by a company called Green Visions https://greenvisions.ba/en, based in Sarajevo. Among there aims are ecologically sound tourism, and a desire to show that Bosnia, and its neighbours, are not war-ravaged moonscapes but home to some of the finest scenery in Europe.

We started our trip in Croatia, staying with friends who have a holiday home on the island of Vis (pronounced ‘Wiss’), a 90-minute catamaran ride from the mainland.


After a couple of days’ rest we met our fellow walkers at Split airport. We were alarmed to see a group of nine 20-30-somethings, most of them lean, long-legged and talking airily about the  marathons they ran last week. We were relieved to meet one other couple around our age – but they turned out to be as fit as the proverbial lop (lop: some say flea, some say hare – but you get the idea.)

We began in the town of Skradin, in a very comfortable hotel, and next morning took the bus to a canyon scoured by the Krupa river. Our guide warned us that the area had had a cool, wet spring and that we might find the path a bit wet in places. Ha! We never let him forget that. An hour or so later we all had our boots off and were wading through 2-3 feet of water at the edge of a raging torrent. All good fun (except for those of us with bunions!), but a sharp reminder that nobody can ever predict the conditions in wild country.



Our second day’s hike was over a stretch of the Markov Grob Plain, below Badanj Peak (1,281 metres, or approx. 4,000 feet). The weather was kind, and we were able to picnic in warm sunshine.

 


Already we were struck by two features of this landscape: the fantastically eroded and broken limestone rocks, and the wonderful array of wildflowers. At the lower elevations it seemed that summer had more or less arrived. Higher up, we came across newly-emerged crocuses and other spring flowers that we in Britain had finished with two or three months ago.

 


 
We now passed our first night in a mountain hut. The sleeping arrangements were fine, but A. and I decided to sleep out under the tall, densely packed beech-trees. It’s a thing we like to do every year if we can. The stars were mostly obscured by the canopy of fresh foliage but where they were visible they really did shine brightly. We were up around 0530h drinking coffee – a wise move since the rain kicked in shortly after.

It proved to be a long and horribly wet day. I think we were all soaked to the skin. I didn’t let my camera out of its bag once, so I have no pictures of the downpour, nor of the hunched, bedraggled hikers. This was one of two days when we got soaked, and of course we now learned the difference between a typical hotel in the region and the mountain huts. The hotels had no provision for drying wet gear – why would they, in such a benign climate? – whereas the huts had wood-burning stoves, and boy were we glad of them. Some even had beer for sale, and spirits. Hallelujah.

The mountain hut at Vilinac, Bosnia. This is where our host sold us beer. May he and his kin,long prosper.
 
Cowslips. I suppose the most appropriate word would be 'abundant'.  
I mentioned in my previous blog that I rarely seem to go on a summer holiday without encountering snow. I wasn’t disappointed. I believe September is the only month of the year in which I don’t possess a photograph of myself grinning from a snow-bank. Maybe I should put it on the bucket list….

 

 

As the week progressed we tackled Sinjal, at 1,831 metres (approx. 5500 feet) the highest peak in Croatia, before transferring to Bosnia and an assault on Vilnac Peak (2,118 metres or 6,600 feet). The descent from the latter was gruelling: more or less seven hours spent zig-zagging through woods (mostly beech) before arriving in the mixed grass- and woodland of the Diva Grabovica. 

We were hugely relieved to get down off that particular mountain - and to bathe our tortured feet in a cool stream just around the corner from here.
By the time our final day arrived the weather had settled down, and we had bright sunshine as we tackled our final hike on the Bjelasnica Massif. Setting out from our super pension in the village of Umoljani, we embarked on a long climb that gave us this glorious view of a distant stream, meandering through a lush meadow:
 


Our final climb, to the last peak on the right. We were quite a tight group at this moment: sometimes we were strung out like last week's washing, over a mile or more from first to last.
Even on Day 7 we were spotting new flowers, like this saxifrage.
After a stiff and seemingly endless descent we arrived at the village of Lukomir, where we were treated to an excellent lunch.

Lukomir: tantalisingly out of reach, and making that particular descent something of a trial.
The day ended with a beautiful stroll along the banks of the stream we had viewed from the heights, earlier in the day.

 

Until A's daughter showed us this trip, as advertised in the Guardian, it had never entered our heads to travel to the Balkans. We were both surprised and delighted to find such fabulous landscapes, friendly people and great hospitality. I can well imagine making another trip, perhaps to stay at one of the village pensions and take day hikes up the mountains.

Well, the muscles have recovered, the kit is clean and dry, and now it's back to the desk; and the allotment. More in due course.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Holidays in May? Check the weather. (Memories of a Pyrenean hike)

We’re about to take off for a two-week trip to Croatia and Bosnia. We start with a couple of days’ travel on trains and boats (Durham, London, Paris, overnight to Milan, and down to Ancona before taking an overnight ferry across the Adriatic to Split. After a couple of days’ rest we set off on a seven-day stretch of the Via Dinarica (https://www.via-dinarica.org/).

I’m hoping the weather is kinder than on some of our previous May holidays. In 2008 we set off to hike a stretch of the long-distance path that traverses the Pyrenees from France into Spain. We departed the little town of Foix in decent enough weather, climbing through the foothills and fondly imaging this was going to be the proverbial walk in the park:
 

 
 As we climbed higher, things deteriorated:




 
At first we rather enjoyed the high mountain scenery. It’s pretty, isn’t it? Especially when we were able to lunch under the lee of a rocky overhang and absorb views like this: 

 
But it wasn’t long before we encountered some seriously challenging conditions:

 
 
I vividly recall staggering up to that ridge, sideways, thigh-deep in the snow, and wondering what the hell awaited on the other side. Mercifully, there was the odd spot of grey amid the white. And before long we started to see the occasional sign of spring:

 
But, faced with weather like this as we set off next morning, I still felt daunted


However, the thing with the mountains is, they are always going to surprise you. Two nights later, we had this hut to ourselves – cast-iron cooking pot, open hearth, a saw with which to cut our firewood, and of course an utterly fabulous morning, of the kind you will only find if you take the risk of venturing out into the wilderness.


If Croatia throws up one or two moments like this we’ll be more than happy.